Why Drug Interdiction Is Doomed to Failure 


"I'm going to create borders," Donald Trump promised while running for president in 2016. "No drugs are coming in. We're gonna build a wall."

Halfway through his term, the president's faith in "the border wall" as a way of blocking the "pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs" was unabated, even as spoilsports noted that the supply comes in mainly through legal points of entry, making the wall irrelevant. And if stopping drugs at the southern border is a tall order, the prospect of intercepting them before they get there is even dimmer, as a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.

"The U.S. government's own assessments have long showed that interdiction has at best only an ephemeral impact on retail prices and supply," note University of Alabama geographer Nicholas Magliocca and his seven co-authors. "Wholesale cocaine prices in the United States have dropped significantly since 1980, deaths from cocaine overdose are rising, and the dismal rate at which counterdrug forces intercept cocaine shipments is well documented."

Critics cite two major reasons why interdiction fails: Pushing down drug trafficking in one place makes it pop up elsewhere (the "balloon effect"), and the threat of seizures scatters traffickers across a wider area (the "cockroach effect"). Magliocca and his collaborators built a computer model, NarcoLogic, that reproduces these phenomena and predicts cocaine trafficking patterns similar to what actually happened from 2001 to 2014, when the locus of smuggling operations shifted to Central America in response to interdiction efforts in Mexico and the eastern Caribbean.

NarcoLogic assumes that law enforcement agencies allocate their resources in a way they think will help them hit annual seizure targets (the current practice), while traffickers respond to those decisions, balancing profit against risk. Direct smuggling routes reduce operating costs but increase risk, while indirect routes with multiple nodes reduce risk but drive up costs. The interaction of these incentives, Magliocca et al. say, underpins a "complex adaptive system" that encourages the movement and spread of drug trafficking along with the collateral damage it causes, including "narco-fueled violence and corruption, infusion of unparalleled amounts of cash and weapons, dispossession and seizure of land from rural communities, and extensive and rapid environmental destruction."

In other words, the researchers write, "narcotrafficking is as widespread and difficult to eradicate as it is because of interdiction, and increased interdiction will continue to spread traffickers into new areas, allowing them to continue to move drugs north." Like drug prohibition, which motivates all manner of innovative and adaptive criminal activity, drug interdiction undermines itself.

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  1. Your telling me that a product that’s banned , that millions want ,will still be provided in large amounts by people taking the risk? I guess the market is more powerful then all the king’s men.

    1. Sorry, accidentally flagged your comment.

      Meant to say ….

      Markets are like gravity, always present. Dams can bottle up rivers for a while, just as laws can bottle up contraband for a while. But dams only intercept a small portion of rain, and laws only intercept a small portion of contraband. And after a while, the dams silt up and become so harmful that even the builders and owners have to admit it. We haven’t reached that silt-up stage yet with drug laws, but it’s coming, which I believe is one reason sex trafficking has been making so much noise recently — the morality police recognize the need for a new mission, the old one is wearing out its welcome.

    2. You can make the same argument against literally every government function that is a negative function.

      Pedophilia (looking at you Jeff and Palin) will always exist, so why bother trying to stop it!

      Human Trafficking will always exist, so why bother trying to stop it!

      When you are argument is based on the strawman of 100% effectiveness of stopping something, you are making a sophomoric argument.

      Reason would be better served explaining why we shouldn’t ban drugs instead of bemoaning the self defeatism of enforcement.

      1. Your examples violate the NAP which is why they are stopped. Using and selling drugs does not.

      2. We enforce laws against Pedophilia and Human trafficking because those are crimes that victimize people. We’ll never stop violent crimes either but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enforce the laws against them.

        Drug trafficking doesn’t victimize anyone, drug users are adult citizens who’ve made the decision to consume potentially dangerous drugs and they’re the only one’s responsible for the decisions they’ve made. So enforcing laws against victimless crimes that try to stop people from getting what they want is pointless. You’re trying to save people who don’t want to be saved. What they want is to get high.

        We don’t penalize people for making unhealthy decisions, otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to eat the fatty, salty, sugary and alcoholic foods and beverage that comprise much of the American diet. In a free society, people are allowed to make bad decisions, despite what the nanny state liberals would have us believe.

        You’re free to hurt yourself but not others.

  2. “while indirect routes with multiple nodes reduce risk but drive up costs. ”

    How does that square with cocaine prices going down? Is price then uncoupled from costs? I.e. cost of doing business is only a tiny fraction of price?

    1. There are lots of inputs, all with their own costs.

    2. Production is way up. Last year Columbia alone produced more cocaine than the entire world did in 2008.

    3. Risk is a cost too – getting arrested, having product seized, needing to bribe officials – those all contribute to the street price just like logistical costs such as raw materials and transportation. A market is going to result in the majority of traffickers finding the sweet spot among those various inputs so the street price can be kept as low as possible.

    4. Because “the supply comes in mainly through legal points of entry?”

    5. because prices are higher than they would be if the producers didn’t have to content with $billions being deployed to use force against them to stop their business.

      In the meantime, they have continued to increase their efficiency so that prices and supply are better than they were 20 years ago but still worse than they’d be in a free market.

      1. I’m for legalizing even the hard drugs as long as all the bullshit progtard laws that coddle drug abusers are eliminated. I really had my hands tied dealing with a meth addict tenant last year. The fucker should have been beaten half to death and whatever was left of him hauled off to jail after he wrecked up the place.

        1. So, we should just leave them on the streets to accost your grandmother?

          I think re-directing enforcement dollars to treatment is a worthy endeavor.

          1. My guess is that it would also be much less costly

        2. What specific law gives special protection to drug abusers? I’m guessing with the case you cited that those laws were about tenant rights and not specifically drug abuser rights.

  3. Who says they want to win it? I think they like it the way it is.

    1. Exactly. We’ve been able to pick the business and political, winners and losers in South/Central America for the last 30 years, all because of our “war” on drugs.

      This was never about drugs, it was about control of countries through control of their major exports. There are no ‘drug warriors’ or massive intelligence budgets if there is no war on drugs.

    2. Think of the jobs, man!

      What percentage of the justice system is dedicated to to locking up druggies? Whatever would they do?

      Why do you hate our heroes in blue, OG?

  4. Life, uh, finds a way.

    1. So does death, and these sumptuary laws against plant leaves are enforced by men with guns.

  5. Drug interdiction is a dying issue (and good riddance). In 10 years’ time, it will be about as controversial as women’s suffrage, I.e., a historical artifact that recalls an embarrassing past.

    What troubles me is that government power, once won, is never given up. So, where will the interdiction forces refocus? I’m thinking it might be policing sex between consenting adults, unfortunately.

  6. Drug warriors are low-quality cop succors who deserve to be crushed by American progress and disdained by better Americans (the liberal-libertarian mainstream).

    Carry on, clingers. And open wider. . . more progress is on its way.

    1. Well said, Art. I remember when I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, one of the reasons was I knew she’d finally end the failed “War on Drugs.” Unfortunately Russia hacked the election and installed Drumpf, so prohibition continues for now.


      1. #StillWithHim

      2. The liberal-libertarian mainstream — mostly Democrats — is leading the way on improving our drug laws, largely against the efforts and wishes of bigoted right-wingers. This is nothing new. It’s the customary trajectory of American progress for more than a half-century: Democrats make progress. Republicans oppose progress, get whipped, mutter bitterly about it.

        1. Yes, Republicans like Joe Biden and Charlie Rangel sought heavier penalties for drug dealers.

          1. Most of the steps up in drug laws occurred under liberal governance. Primarily in heavy blue areas like NYC, baltimore, etc.

        2. Well that’s utter bullshit. They are actively working against Trump’s prison reform efforts.

    2. Trump has already done more than Obama did in regards to alleviating the drugs wars. Silly Kirkland.

      1. Bigotry and resentment of better people seem to have rotted your brain, JesseAz. Trump is — and has been — a pandering, authoritarian prude with respect to recreational drugs.

        1. Arty, it will be amusing when you are forced to conservatives for your life one day. Subversive piece of shit.

  7. Now do the same for illegal immigration.

    Pushing down drug trafficking migration in one place makes it pop up elsewhere (the “balloon effect”), and the threat of seizuresenforcement scatters traffickersmigration across a wider area (the “cockroach effect”).

    1. The War on Illegal Migration is the same basic thing as the War on Drugs, just with another name.

      – It punishes behavior that doesn’t harm any other person
      – Those that support the War must do so based on collectivist ideas of “social harm” that can’t be quantified in any rigorous manner. In the case of the War on Illegal Migration, its proponents must resort to a collectivist view of property rights which undermines every other principle of private property rights
      – The tools needed to perpetuate the War are anathema to liberty, for all parties concerned
      – It’s expensive
      – It’s ultimately futile – there isn’t a wall big enough, nor a police force large enough, that can keep out all the migrants OR the drugs, without turning the country into an open air prison.

      1. – It punishes behavior that doesn’t harm any other person
        Here Jeff claims there are no negative externalities with the importation of unvaccinated, uneducated, low income, unskilled labor.

        Truly Jeff is the dumbest of dumb fucks.

        1. And think of all those unraped American kids Pedo Jeffy can help. Maybe he can start a matchmaking program between illegal alien child sex predators and American children. So Jeffy can make sure no American children remain unsodomized.

          1. You really are a tiresome troll.

        2. Of course there are negative externalities. There are negative externalities to the exercise of any liberty.

          For example, the negative externalities associated with the right to keep and bear arms is an increased level of gun violence. Is that reason enough to limit the right to keep and bear arms? No? Oh, okay then.

          So why doesn’t the same standard apply to the freedom of association? I’ll tell you why: because you aren’t interested in liberty for liberty’s sake, you are more than happy to take away people’s liberty if it produces outcomes you don’t like.

        3. And isn’t it interesting that when it comes to migration, JesseAz is quick to categorize migrants as “unvaccinated, uneducated, low income, unskilled labor”. That’s a rather broad brush generalization, isn’t it? I wonder why JesseAz would resort to such demagoguery. Gee, I wonder why.

      2. Still waiting to hear what your actual immigration policy is because you constantly say “I don’t want open borders” while advocating for open borders and refusing to state specifically what policy you would like. I’m starting to think that you’re just a troll, which is unfortunate.

    2. God you’re such a dumb fuck.

      1. That’s the best you can do? Can’t dispute any of my points, just insult? Sounds par for the course for typical mouth-breathing Trump-humping morons such as yourself.

  8. Dr. Lonny Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood.

    Post USA Civil War alcoholism was called “the soldiers disease”

    Addiction is a symptom of PTSD.

    1. How many female non-addicts were sexually abused in childhood?

      The “soldiers disease” was opium addiction, not alcohol.

    2. Addiction is a consequence or sequela of PTSD.

      It is more a sign than a symptom. So addiction has high sensitivity and low specificity for PTSD.

    3. Hey MSimon,
      This is Chris. We spoke on the phone like a week ago.
      Great to see you here on the Reason Comments!

      I would just like to ask you, as someone who is a current victim of the prohibition of heroin and who will probably be murdered by the prohibitionists due to the effects of said prohibition, the following.

      Would you mind not using the word “addicts” or “addiction”?
      Or at least put them in quotes?

      Here’s that chart I mentioned on the phone:


      As you can see, the word “drug addict” was literally invented out of nowhere in 1915, the SAME EXACT year prohibition went into effect, and it has ballooned at a 45 degree exponential angle ever since then.

      It is literally a prohibitionist word. Invented and used as propaganda by the prohibitions the exact same year prohibition went into effect.

      The concept of “addiction” is the backbone of prohibition.

      Also, the “soldier’s disease” concept has been exposed as fraudulent. The term was made up in the 20th century by prohibitionists and was claimed to be a Civil-War era term used to describe veterans who were also morphine consumers. There is absolutely no evidence that this term was ever used in the 19th century.

      “No perjorative nickname for “addicted” veterans, like Soldier’s Disease, appeared in the literature until 1915, and it did not become part of the Conventional Wisdom of drug experts until almost a century after Appomattox.”


      That is a great read that completely destroys the myth of the “Soldier’s Disease”.

      Also, very interesting how the year 1915 keeps coming up!

      By the way:

      I hope nothing that I wrote comes off as offensive in any way. This is simply a subject that I am very passionate about. My life and quality thereof does depend on it after all! But more important than me, so do the lives of billions of others, both currently existing and in the future.

      Also, I must note how much of a pleasure it was to speak with you. I am still reeling with excitement that there’s someone else out there that truly “gets it”.

      Take care of yourself and keep on fighting the good fight!


      1. Uhhh… But people are addicts? I was a smoking addict. Hell, still am, even though I mostly vape now.

        So if you were 4serius… You’re being silly. There’s a difference between casual use of stuff, and being an addict. I’ve casually used a few other recreational drugs in my day, but was never addicted to them the way I am nicotine or even caffeine.

  9. Does this same logic apply to guns?

    1. Yes, and Mexican and ass sex as well.

    2. Hm, my comments with links are not showing up. The squirrels have grown in power.

      1. And nothing was lost.

  10. Whether the prohibition can be made to stick by killing and jailing enough people is an interesting perennial debate. But a much more practical concern is whether Prohibition and The Crash coexisted by coincidence or causal connection. If the wholesale tapping of phones, looting of bank accounts, nullification of rights and padlocking, confiscation and destruction of property and people causes no collateral damage to the economy, then why did the crashes in 1929, 1987 and 2008 coincide with surges in weaponized fanatical prohibitionism?

    1. Oh fuck off.

  11. I love your post. This post is outstanding. Keep posting such a good article like this. Highly Rated.

  12. Well, the truth is that even though doing cocaine or heroin is not really a good life choice… Unless one does it literally like once a year or something, in which case whatevs… The bottom line is this stuff being legal would be less harmful than all the mess made by it being illegal.

    I’ve managed to even convince so-cons of this a few times with people I knew for long enough to beat it into their heads… So there may be hope someday.

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